Students battling eating disorders work towards self-acceptance

Lauren Serge | Staff Writer

For most individuals, eating is a habitual, seemingly mindless task.  For those with eating disorders, eating is a constant, daily conflict.

This consistent trial is faced by many teenagers as they combat physical and mental deterioration. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders are frequently apparent during adolescence and are spawned from poor body image. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. These disorders affect males and females; however, they are significantly more prevalent in females. National surveys estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Junior Anna Kemper’s battle with her eating disorder began as a young child when she was very picky about her food. This issue illuminated in fifth grade when she began restricting food altogether. An eventual pattern of fasting for days and binging for days ensued, a detriment Kemper said she never acknowledged as problematic until she entered high school.

“Freshman year, there was a point in time where I lost 40 pounds in less than three weeks,” Kemper said. “Inside, I would feel so good about myself after fasting for a few days, but then I’d weigh myself, and it wouldn’t reflect what I had thought, and automatically, my body image would change.”

Kemper said she developed obsessive habits with tracking her food, limiting herself to a set amount of calories each day and straying away from foods she deemed unhealthy.

“When I was at my worst, I would have a lot of fears about what kind of food I was eating,” Kemper said. “I had orthorexic tendencies. I would try to only eat plant-based foods, and I was obsessed with counting calories, sodium and fat grams.”

These routine limitations made to lose weight are common in individuals with eating disorders. Senior Emma Soper joined a running club in seventh grade, and after convincing herself she needed to lose weight, she began taking desserts out of her meals. Once she factored out desserts, it became easy to eliminate all other foods.

“I started taking out everything–breakfast, lunch, dinner,” Soper said. “At the beginning of seventh grade, I was around 115 pounds, and in two months, I had lost about 30 pounds. I knew I was losing a lot of weight, but I didn’t even know what anorexia was at that point. I just decided to keep going because it was so easy, and I wanted to be skinnier.”

In middle school, junior Leah Markvan began the process of food limitation, not because of physical perception, but because she utilized it as a way to take control of an aspect of her life. By controlling her nutrition, Markvan felt she was stabilizing herself. Markvan said while she was fighting her eating disorder, she was unaware of its severity.

“At the time, you don’t think you’re anorexic,” Markvan said. “You’ll have all the symptoms, but you don’t view it as extreme when you’re going through it. You don’t think it’s a problem until you’re done with it. Once you realize what you’ve been through, you notice it was a problem.”

The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Soper’s struggle with anorexia dramatically worsened: her hair was falling out, and she reached a point where her heart began to fail. Soper was taken to Children’s Hospital where she was connected to a heart monitor daily.

Aside from the direct weight loss, patients battling anorexia and related eating disorders can suffer from organ failure, osteoporosis, and fatigue. Dr. Katrina Lenz, a psychology fellow at Children’s Hospital, works on the eating disorders team in behavioral medicine. Lenz said the initial assessments that are made to diagnose someone with eating disorders are compared to the patient’s past patterns.

“A lot of times patients are eating, but it’s not enough for their energy needs. Their athletic behaviors, age, and how fast they’re growing are all taken into account,” Lenz said. “We try to assess if they’re losing weight and how they’re losing it, whether or not they’re getting sufficient nutrition and if it’s mirrored with their physical history.”

Lenz said anorexia itself is a biological illness with an abundance of medical and emotional consequences. She said enduring treatment requires patients to enter a state of mind they have viewed as frightening.

“The hardest thing about the treatment is making sure they’re getting good nutrition and they’re in a medically healthy place that requires eating–when that’s the very thing that’s been the scariest thing to do,¨ Lenz said. “If you think about people who have really significant fears, most you can avoid, but, you can not avoid eating. It’s something that people are faced with several times a day.”

For Soper, she spent nearly two weeks in treatment on bedrest to conserve her energy. When she returned home, Soper said maintaining healthy habits and accessing the balanced mindset was unfeasible.

“I would do anything possible to get that food away,” Soper said. “I had a dietician who gave me a meal plan, and my parents would sit down with me, and I had to keep both hands on the table because otherwise I’d start putting food in my pants, lying about what I ate, or giving it to the dog. My mom would beg me to eat every single day, five times a day. The rules were to sit there for an hour, and if I refused to eat, I’d have to take a boost (liquid meal replacement). So we would basically dedicate five hours a day to just sitting there, begging. And that was my life every single day.”

Soper said patterns of relapsing and recovering continued for several years, an occurrence consistent with 35 to 41 percent of patients with eating disorders, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Weeks after coming home, Soper would effectuate, but ultimately disregard, her meal plan, finding ways to discard food, thus, sending her back to the hospital.

Soper was in and out of treatment between seventh and ninth grade, where she spent three weeks in a mental hospital. During this time, she gained perspective through meeting people with various mental illnesses. Soper learned through those experiences that anorexia was a mental illness itself.

“When I was there, there were people who had hallucinations and voices in their heads, so if you had an eating disorder, you thought you were the only normal one,” Soper said. “But here I was–my mind all day was food; you wake up thinking about food; you dream about food; you fall asleep thinking about food. The only thing you’re listening to is your eating disorder. Everything else is just white noise.”

Seven months ago, Kemper reached out to her mom about her disorder, and she was diagnosed with atypical anorexia, a disorder containing the same restrictive behaviors of anorexia, without the low weight criteria. She now has a team of doctors who specialize in stabilizing her nutritional and emotional needs. Kemper said her biggest challenge through undergoing treatment and tackling her eating disorder has been withholding a sense of security as she reaches a healthier physical and mental state.

Balancing emotional and physical contentment is the issue both Soper and Kemper said affected their drive to destruction. By having an askew perception of themselves, the girls felt they needed to remain locked inside their eating disorders.

“I feel like I’ve never been able to know what I look like,” Kemper said. “I must’ve been so skinny then, but in reality, I felt so huge.”

This inability for Kemper to visualize her appearance was prominent for Soper as well, as it was tainted by her mentality.

“It was weird because the more and more weight I lost, the fatter I thought I was getting, because your mind gets sicker and sicker,” Soper said. “When I looked at myself in the mirror–even though my ribs were protruding out of my stomach–I thought I looked so fat. Your skin is purple, your hair is falling out, but you see yourself as fat. You think you’re fatter than when you started off because your mind is completely distorted.”

The distortion that is present during the battle with eating disorders is also apparent during the recovery process. Markvan said it is difficult to mentally accept the necessity to reach recuperation.

“When you’re going through it, you don’t want to be in recovery, you want to stay in this self-destructive cycle; you have to want to be in recovery,” Markvan said. “So when it was really affecting every aspect of my life–like constantly feeling dizzy and not focusing in school–I wanted to be in recovery. I wanted to be better.”

While there has been a significant amount of progress for Kemper, Soper and Markvan through conquering their disorders, there are long-term effects that are embedded in their everyday routine.

“It’s still in my life in the way that I still have to think about every meal. For most people it’s habit, but for me, it’s more of a daunting task,” Kemper said. “It feels impossible to get my metabolism back. It’s impossible to not pay attention to what I eat and maintain weight. It seems like an outrageous goal, and it’s really hard to get in that mindset.”

Soper said the time she spent dealing with her eating disorder is precious to her. She felt she deprived herself of time that could have been spent in many other ways, and she advises others not to do the same.

“I beat anorexia. That was so hard, but I beat it,” Soper said. “What helped me mentally was just time. There was no ‘aha’ moment during my anorexia. I slowly got better, and I honestly never thought I would. When you’re in it, you think it’s going to be your life forever. You can pick apart your body until it’s nothing, but you can’t help what body you’re born into, and you’re either going to have to accept that body, or you’re going to live a miserable life.”

Accepting their physical selves is a process each of the girls are continuing to undertake.  Overcoming the mental antagonists in their eating disorders has awarded them with a sense of ease.

“Of course there’s still challenges, but my physical and mental health have gotten so much better,” Kemper said. “The stressful thinking of, ‘What am I gonna eat today?’ is gone. Instead it’s more like, what do I get to eat today?”

In the recent years, there has been an uproar of body positivity influenced by social media. From this, a liberation has evolved for individuals to unshackle themselves from their burdens in their physical image. Markvan said this new acceptance resonated within her and her decision to publicly document her experiences through combating her eating disorder, and ultimately, surmounting it.

“One day, I realized I am better, and I wanted people to know I had been through so much,” Markvan said. “I started looking at things in different perspectives, and realized there’s different ways to cope with things, like talking to people.”